MONTE CARLO (Monaco), April 23: Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic set up a heavyweight Monte Carlo Masters third-round clash against fellow 20-year-old Andy Murray on Tuesday.
Serbian Djokovic, the world number three, saw off experienced Croatian Ivan Ljubicic 6-3, 6-3, in his opening clay court match of the season.
At the end, the two players, close friends and fellow Monte Carlo residents, embraced at the net and even engaged in a soccer-style bout of shirt-swapping.
“Ivan is one of my best friends. We often practice together and live near to each other,” said Djokovic who overcame dropping his serve in the first game of the tie.
“It’s never easy to play a friend as we have a great relationship both on and off the court. That’s probably why I made such a nervous start.
“But I came up with a straight sets win which is very important. I played my best tennis at the most important moments and that’s what matters.”
The Serbian will take on 14th seeded Murray after the Briton saw off Italian claycourt specialist Filippo Volandri 6-4, 6-1.
Indian Wells Masters winner Djokovic, playing his first match since suffering a shock opening round exit at the Miami Masters four weeks ago, overcame his shabby start and hit back immediately to level at 1-1.
He broke again in the eighth game on his way to taking the first set.
He quickly opened up a 2-1 lead in the second set before going on to secure victory on his first match point when Ljubicic netted a forehand.
After the match, Djokovic was presented with an award for being the best player of the year on tour in 2007. He also received a picture of himself made out of chocolate.
“It’s nice to win the award. I feel like the champion already having received so many prizes,” he said.
Both Murray and Djokovic have defeated world number one Roger Federer this year but the Serbian will start as favourite on Thursday having won all three of his career meetings with the Scot.
The last time Murray played Volandri, in Hamburg last year, he suffered a serious wrist injury which sidelined him for both the French Open and Wimbledon.
But he had few problems on Tuesday breaking twice in both sets before fighting off five break points when he served for the match.
“It was a pretty tight first set but I played well on the important points,” said Murray.
“Patience is key on clay. The rallies were long and he started to make mistakes in the second set.”Marat Safin’s latest bid to reignite his colourful, rollercoaster career enjoyed a boost with a 6-3, 6-2 first-round victory over Belgium’s Xavier Malisse.
Safin, a former world number one and twice a Grand Slam title winner, has seen his world ranking slip to 93 in a year which had yielded just three tour wins this week.
The 28-year-old, a semi-finalist here in 2004, now faces fifth seed David Ferrer of Spain, last weekend’s Valencia champion.
Also going through to the second round were Argentinian 10th seed Juan Monaco, Spanish 12th seed Tommy Robredo and Ivo Karlovic, the 15th seeded Croatian.
Results (prefix number denotes seeding):
4-Andy Murray (Britain) bt Filippo Volandri (Italy) 6-4, 6-1; 3-Novak Djokovic (Serbia) bt Ivan Ljubicic (Croatia) 6-3, 6-3.
Nicolas Almagro (Spain) bt Jean-Rene Lisnard (Monaco) 6-4, 6-4; Ruben Ramirez Hidalgo (Spain) bt Gilles Simon (France) 6-1, 6-1; 11-Juan Monaco (Argentina) bt Lee Hyung-Taik (South Korea) 6-0, 7-5; Andreas Seppi (Italy) bt Agustin Calleri (Argentina) 6-4, 6-3; 15-Ivo Karlovic (Croatia) bt Sebastien Grosjean (France) 4-6; 6-4, 4-1 (Grosjean retired); 12-Tommy Robredo (Spain) bt Stanislas Wawrinka (Switzerland) 6-4, 7-5; Igor Andreev (Russia) bt Dmitry Tursunov (Russia) 7-5, 6-3; Marat Safin (Russia) bt Xavier Malisse (Belgium) 6-3, 6-2; Simone Bolelli (Italy) bt Juan Ignacio Chela (Argentina) 6-2, 6-2; Jarkko Nieminen (Finland) bt Marc Gicquel (France) 6-0, 6-4.—Agencies